Top 10 players to watch this spring for Notre Dame football

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The dominant narrative Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly is pushing this spring is the concept of an open quarterback competition.

In reality, the openness may not be any more authentic than Monday’s first spring practice, with a projected high temperature of 20 degrees and a chance of light snow, passing for “spring.”

Repatriated quarterback Everett Golson likely needs to earn back his old starting job more than the senior-to-be has to beat out the only other scholarship quarterback in camp this spring, sophomore-to-be Malik Zaire, the latter of whom is still awaiting his first collegiate snap.

“It’s a fine line,” said former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley of Kelly’s strategy to reintegrate Golson back into the team chemistry after the Myrtle Beach, S.C., product spent the 2013 season suspended from school and football because of an academic misconduct issue.

“You can’t just hand him the job back as he walks in the door,” Sharpley continued. “If you did, you’re kind of telling the team what he did to get kicked off the team was OK. But you figure he is eventually going to be a part of your leadership, and it’s going to be a gradual process.”

Just that dynamic alone makes Golson the No. 1 player in our Top 10 to Watch for spring practice. Add in the fact that he’ll be playing for a new quarterbacks coach, new offensive coordinator and have virtually a new offensive line in front of him, and spring will be full of adjustments for Golson, 10-1 as a starter during ND’s title run in 2012.

And with leading return receiver DaVaris Daniels off the team for the spring because of his own academic shortcomings, Golson has a fleet of receivers he’s connected with just twice in actual games. Tight end Ben Koyack and wide receiver Chris Brown each have one career catch that came off the right hand of Golson.

Kelly kicks off the spring sessions with a Friday morning press conference (10 a.m. EST). The Irish then practice Monday and Wednesday in shorts, presumably indoors, before taking a two-week break and resuming March 19.

The Blue-Gold Game is set for 12:30 p.m., April 12 at Notre Dame Stadium. Between that spring wrap-up and Friday’s frigid primer, here are the other nine players to keep an eye on:

2. Greg Bryant, running back, sophomore-to-be: It’s not just the five-star pedigree that makes the 5-10, 204-pounder from Delray Beach, Fla., intriguing, it’s also the bulldog determination and mental toughness he extracted from a trying freshman season.

Bryant collected all of three carries for 14 yards in 2013 before a knee injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the season. Rumors about a possible transfer enveloped him, but Bryant somehow found strength amid the series of setbacks.

He wasn’t alone in his temporary frustration. Among Rivals.com’s other four five-star running backs from the 2013 recruiting class (Michigan’s Derrick Green, Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell, USC’s Ty Issac and Oregon’s Thomas Tyner), only Tyner amassed more than 270 rushing yards as a college freshman.

Bryant did get a medical redshirt year from the NCAA, and he resurfaced during ND’s bowl workouts as a force during practice. He then carried that momentum into winter conditioning,.

Even with George Atkinson III having bolted for the NFL Draft a year ahead of schedule, the backfield remains crowded and talented, but it would be shocking if Bryant didn’t work himself into the rotation anyway.

3. Ishaq Williams, outside linebacker, senior-to-be: There are always players who benefit from a scheme or coordinator change, and the 6-foot-5, 261-pound Brooklyn, N.Y., product is as good a candidate as anyone in 2014.

One of five former five-star prospects who will be on the Irish roster when ND opens the season Aug. 30 against Rice (Bryant, safety Max Redfield, fellow outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and incoming freshman offensive tackle Quenton Nelson are the others), Williams can chalk up part of his largely underwhelming first three seasons in South Bend to playing behind Prince Shembo.

But there are still questions. The fact that none of them have to do with Williams’ motor make the situation that much more perplexing.

A clear path to a starting role and a clean slate with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder coming in are going to redefine Williams — for better or for worse.

4. Mike McGlinchey, offensive tackle, sophomore-to-be: There are a handful of candidates to replace four-year starter Zack Martin at left tackle, and some very good ones. The 6-foot-8, 290-pound Philadelphia product is the decided dark horse.

Sophomore Steve Elmer, who saw significant playing time as a true freshman at tackle and guard, seems to be the logical choice. Or junior Ronnie Stanley could slide over from right tackle.

But with Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, it’s about putting your best five on the field at the same time, and a strong spring could catapult McGlinchey into that group. If so, ND could end up with a starting offensive line comprising entirely players who came to ND as offensive tackles.

McGlinchey shows so much promise it may be more a question of when then if he makes the move into the top five.

5. Michael Deeb, inside linebacker, sophomore-to-be: It’s entirely possible that with senior-to-be Jarrett Grace convalescing from a broken leg this spring and a talented crop of freshman led by Nyles Morgan not arriving until June, the players manning the inside linebacker spots this spring may not be the ones topping the depth chart in August.

Deeb, a superb athlete, has a chance to make a lasting impression this spring at one of the two vacated inside linebacker spots, as do fifth-year senior Kendall Moore and former walk-on Joe Schmidt, before the reps get diluted in the fall.

The 6-2, 242-pound Plantation, Fla.. product, who was almost unredshirted at midseason in 2013 because of depth concerns, must be able to parlay that raw athleticism into refined linebacker play.

6. Torii Hunter Jr., wide receiver, sophomore-to-be: Actually this could be a group entry. Junior-to-be Chris Brown and sophomores Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu all have a chance to evolve from situational threats into front-line receivers this spring.

So does early enrolled freshman Justin Brent.

But what kept Hunter off the field on Saturdays last fall wasn’t a lack of talent or ability to absorb the offense. It was a slow-healing leg injury. Like Bryant, he came alive in ND’s bowl practices and has the talent to leapfrog those with more experience.

The aspiring two-sport star and Detroit Tigers draftee pushed away baseball this spring to focus on football and maybe for the foreseeable future.

Academic casualty DaVaris Daniels is on track for readmittance in June, but his absence this spring gives the new wave of ND receivers more of a chance to develop chemistry with quarterbacks Golson and Zaire.

7. Chase Hounshell, defensive end, senior-to-be: The Kirtland, Ohio, product’s late recruiting-cycle flip from Florida to ND a little over three years ago probably would have caused a bit more of a stir had his recruiting class not also included fellow front-seven standouts Ishaq Williams, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

He still got on the field for some meaningful downs as a backup the ensuing fall but hasn’t played since because of three surgeries on the same shoulder.

The 6-5, 271-pounder found his way onto the practice field, though, late last season and took himself off the trajectory of becoming a medical hardship case — at least for now. The intrigue becomes who is Hounshell and how much can he help a rebuilt defensive line after not playing in a single game for two seasons?

8. Max Redfield, safety, sophomore-to-be: If there was a philosophical divide between Kelly and former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, it was Diaco’s reluctance to trust young players — no matter how talented — unless the situation dictated he had to.

Redfield fermented beyond the two-deeps for much of the season before Kelly inserted the formerly poached USC recruit as a starter in the Pinstripe Bowl, after Diaco had left for Connecticut.

The safety position group was generally graded as a disappointment in 2013, given the blend of talent, experience and especially numbers. The Irish didn’t lose anybody there and add freshman Drue Tranquill in June and junior-to-be Nicky Baratti back into the mix in August — unless Kelly changes his mind and pushes him into contact in the spring. Baratti missed the 2013 season with a shoulder injury.

VanGorder’s scheme may emphasize a different skill set for the safeties, but Redfield is versatile enough that he shouldn’t get lost in the numbers.

9. Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end, freshman: The 6-foot-3, 260-pound early enrollee was deemed the most college-ready of ND’s defensive line prospects by several recruiting analysts, and his early start gives him a chance to find his way into the two-deeps in August.

But there’s plenty of culture shock to work through before the Demarest, N.J., product can arrive as a rotation player, even with ND’s turnover at his position group.

10. Mike Heuerman, tight end, sophomore-to-be: Troy Niklas’ surprising exit into the 2014 NFL draft leaves Kelly with only senior-to-be Ben Koyack and four other players who have yet to take their first college snap at the tight end position .

While the redshirting Heuerman became a bystander in practice late in the season because of an injury, classmate Durham Smythe wowed Kelly and the other Irish coaches and likely has the inside track. Spring presents Heuerman, a player with the skill set to flex out away from the formation, a chance to get on equal footing with Smythe and get a jump on incoming freshman Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, both of whom arrive in June.

EHansen@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson's return to the football team will be one of the main storylines of spring practice. (SBT Photo/James Brosher)